NFL Preseason 2012: Where Have All the Good Right Tackles Gone?
New York Jets fans are in a panic.
Starting right tackle Wayne Hunter gave up 2.5 sacks on Saturday in the team's second preseason game against the rival New York Giants. He also had another potential sack negated by a dubious offsides penalty. This after a 2011 season where he gave up 8.5 sacks and became the fans' chosen scapegoat for the Jets' lost year.
If you read any Jets blog this week or listen to sports talk radio, you will read and hear legions of Jets fans calling for Hunter's head. They already feel the season will be a disaster if Hunter continues to start. They believe general manager Mike Tannenbaum should immediately be fired for not addressing this problem sooner.
But despite what some in the media would have you believe, this dilemma is not limited to just New York. All around the league there is a shortage of quality right tackles.
Take San Diego, where Jeromey Clary returns as the starter despite being ranked as the second-worst right tackle in the league by Pro Football Focus. Already fans seem none too happy with this decision. One blogger notes that he looked "overmatched" in the team's first preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, where he went head-to-head with first-round pass rusher Nick Perry.
Meanwhile, over in St. Louis, a "competition" is brewing between Barry Richardson, the lowest-rated right tackle on PFF's list, and draft bust Jason Smith. One Rams blogger would rather move starting guard Harvey Dahl to right tackle than endure a year of Bradford getting killed by Smith or Richardson.
Poor right tackle play is rampant around the league right now. Of the 27 tackles given a positive grade by PFF last season, only 11 played the majority of their games on the right side of the line. Meanwhile, 26 players who played a majority of their team's games at right tackle had a negative grade for the entire season. Fourteen right tackles also gave up eight or more sacks last season, or at least a half a sack a game. In 2010 just five right tackles gave up that many.
The main reason for this poor quality of right tackle play is the rise of explosive, athletic pass rushers throughout the league. As more teams have begun relying on pass-heavy offenses, defenses have tried to add more and more quality pass rushers.
Ever since the Giants defeated the Patriots in their first Super Bowl meeting, coaches and general managers have seen the value of having three or more explosive pass rushers to disrupt a quarterback's rhythm . Teams put their most athletic tackles on the left side to protect their quarterback's blindside (assuming said quarterback is right-handed) and then leave their bigger, road-grader type tackles on the right side to help in run support.
But today many teams have two quality pass rushers or move their best pass rusher all around the defensive line. The less-athletic right tackles simply cannot keep up, leading to more sacks and quarterback pressures. The league is currently in a transition period where previous run-blocking specialists now have to block edge rushers like Jason Pierre-Paul and Trent Cole. It's a disaster waiting to happen.
With so few quality right tackles in the league, it becomes harder and harder for teams to replace those who are struggling.
Jets fans are clamoring that Tannenbaum should have done more in the offseason to sign a quality right tackle to replace Hunter. But there are just not that many options out there. For instance, PFF ranked the top five free agent tackles available in 2012. Only one right tackle made the list, and that was Vernon Carey, who actually finished the 2011 season with a negative grade after moving over to guard. With so few good tackles in the league anymore, teams are reluctant to part ways with anyone they think could turn into a reliable starter or backup.
That then leaves the draft, which is always a crapshoot. Some teams can find a quality right tackle in the early rounds. Former Green Bay Packers first round pick Bryan Bulaga had the sixth-highest PFF grade amongst all tackles. But with the importance of protecting the quarterback's blindside, and the renewed emphasis on the passing game throughout the league, teams will focus more and more on finding left tackles and playmakers in the early rounds of the draft.
As right tackles throughout the league continue to struggle, fans will surely use them as scapegoats for their offensive line's poor play. They will continue to blame general managers for not signing or trading for better options. Colleges will eventually learn to groom right tackles who can deal with the explosive and athletic defenders throughout the NFL. But until that happens, fans are just going to have to use the blogosphere to vent their frustrations.
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